26 March 2009

Dodes’ka-den (どですかでん, 1970)

Criterion has just released Akira Kurosawa’s first colour film, Dodes’ka-den (どですかでん, 1970) on DVD. The film is a radical departure in terms of style and subject matter from Kurosawa’s earlier work and its commercial failure led to a period of depression and his attempted suicide in 1971. Critics, on the other hand, have praised the film for its unflinching portrayal of people living in slums on the outskirts of Tokyo. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1972.

The DVD includes the 36-minute documentary Akira Kurosawa: It’s Wonderful to Create which includes interviews with cast and crew members. There is also an accompanying booklet with an essay by Stephen Prince and an interview with Kurosawa’s script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, author of Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa. Dodesuka-den was not featured in Waiting on the Weather, so this interview is a real treat. They also asked her to contribute one of her humorous illustrations of the film production. You can see her illustration and read her insightful interview here on the Criterion website. The film trailer is available here.

UPDATE: Read Marc Saint-Cyr's review of this DVD at Toronto J-Film Pow-wow

Sound of the Mountain (山の音, 1954)

One of Mikio Naruse’s most acclaimed films, Sound of the Mountain (Yama no Oto / 山の音, 1954) is an adaptation of Yasunari Kawabata’s novel of the same name, which had been published in serialized form between 1949 and 1954. The film tells the story of Shingo Ogata, an aging Tokyo salaryman who begins to realize that his family is slowly coming apart at the seams. He has a rather perfunctory relationship with his wife Yasuko (Taruko Nagaoka), he learns that his son, Shuuichi (Ken Uehara) is openly cheating on his daughter-in-law (Setsuko Hara), and his daughter (Chieko Nakakita) leaves her husband to return to the family home in Kamakura with her two young daughters.

Having watched indulged in watching many of my favourite Ozu films in recent weeks, the sharp dialogue in Sound of the Mountain came as a real shock. Antipathy is not merely hinted at through gestures and averted gazes, but put into words designed to injure other members of the family. Shingo’s wife and daughter are both jealous of beautiful, dutiful Kikuko and try to bring her down by reminding her that she is childless. The daughter, Fusako, feels hurt by her father’s partiality for Kikuko and suggests that he neglected her when she was growing up. Yasuko clearly harbours some resentment for the fact that Shingo only married her because her older, more beautiful sister died. The son, Shuiichi injures everyone through his self-centered, disrespectful behaviour.

The one ray of sunshine in this dysfunctional family is the warm relationship between father and daughter-in-law. We are clued into this in their first scene together, when they meet up by chance on their way home for dinner. After Shingo points out a sunflower in a garden – an image that provides an unusual metaphor for Shingo’s theory about how wonderful it would be if people could wash out the insides of their heads and start afresh – as well as indicating that the film begins in the late summer. Naruse’s normally static camera becomes animated and tracks along with them as they walk home together. Their close relationship is first indicated by their pleasant banter and then emphasized when they discover that they both brought home shellfish for dinner at Enoshima’s local shop. Shingo bough sazae (sea snails) and Kikuko bought lobster and shrimp.

The film begins quite lightheartedly with many amusing moments designed to draw us into an identification with the main protagonist, Shingo. For example, early on in the film there is a wonderful scene where Shingo sits contemplatively at the door smoking, looking out into the moonlight at his perfectly composed back garden. His reverie is interrupted by the snores of his wife. He tries to read for a while, but her snores are too loud for that, and he pinches her nose in an effort to abate her snores. This moment informs us, with humour, of the difficult relationship Shingo has with his wife, but this lighthearted introduction to Shingo does not prepare us for just how startlingly bad his domestic life is about to come.

From the perspective of someone who has grown up in a predominately Judeo-Christian community, like I have, it was fascinating to see how matter-of-factly the very difficult subjects of adultery, divorce, and abortion are dealt with my the characters in Sound of the Mountain. The subject of abortion was pretty taboo in Hollywood films of the 1950s and in contemporary Hollywood films it comes with a lot of emotional and political baggage. I don’t know what the views of Japanese audiences in the 1950s would have been but we can gather a few things from the character responses in Sound of the Mountain. Kikuko, although desirous of having children, seems to put the prospective life of the child ahead of her own desire for motherhood. She looks at her sullen young niece Satoko, and sees how the child suffers because of her parents’ broken marriage. Although it is not said explicitly, the film implies that Kikuko does not want a child of her own to suffer in the same way. The other characters do not moralize on the subject, but instead react in highly personal ways to news of her abortion. Her husband takes it as a slight against him, that Kikuko would not want to have his child. Her parents-in-law are hurt that she made the decision independently and did not discuss her dilemma with them first.

My biggest frustration while watching Sound of the Mountain was that we never really learn what Kikuko’s thinking. As in Ozu’s films, Setsuko Hara’s character expresses herself through expression and gesture not words. It was not until I ruminated on the film overnight that I realized what Naruse was doing with the film. We can’t know what Kikuko’s thinking because the film restricts itself almost entirely to Shingo’s point-of-view. Any scenes for which he is not present, such as the brief cameo of his son-in-law in conversion with his son, he learns about soon afterwards.

Kikuko’s face is like the Noh mask that Shingo receives when a colleague passes away. This reference is made explicit when the mask is described as looking like the face of a child from certain angles. Kikuko’s husband had earlier told his father that he finds it difficult to consummate their relationship because he sees Kikuko as being too child-like. Noh masks are famous for their uncanny ability to appear to change expression when tilted. Like the mystery of the changing expressions on the Noh mask, Shingo spends the whole movie looking at Kikuko’s face and trying to decipher what she is feeling.

For me, the Sound of the Mountain is a kind of unrequited love story about the relationship between Shingo and Kikuko. As in real life, there is no neat resolution at the end of the film. The final scene takes place in quiet winter beauty of Shinjuku Park, where Shingo and Kikuko say farewell to each other. Although Kikuko’s future is uncertain, the openness space of the park contrasts with the confined spaces of the Ogura family home among the hills of Kamakura, suggesting the future possibilities for Kikuko now that she is free from the confines of her loveless marriage. With a minimalist visual aesthetic, Naruse has created a remarkable portrait of the internal workings of a 1950s Japanese family.

This film is available from Eureka as a part of the Masters of Cinema Naruse Box Set Volume One. No word yet on when we can expect the next volume of Naruse films (originally planned for release in late 2007), but the BFI does offer its own Naruse Boxset. Among other amazing Japanese classics in their catalogue, Eureka recently released the rarely screened Kon Ichikawa films Kokoro (1955) and Alone Across the Water (Taiheiyo hitori-botchi, 1963). They will be releasing Tokyo Sonata on DVD at the end of May.

To order the Japanese DVD of the film: Yama no Oto / Japanese Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

21 March 2009

Nippon Connection 2009

Nippon Connection runs from the 15th until the 19th of April this year. They published their programme earlier this month and the excitement is mounting. As always, they have a packed schedule of events and it will be difficult to decide which events to attend. This year's Nippon Retro features pink films. The Nippon Culture events include everything from a tea ceremony to a Butoh dance workshop. For me the most curious event in Nippon Culture is the "Sound Concert with Silent Film" directed by Yukihiro Ikutani with sound composition by Tetsuya Hori.

I'm going to try to attend as many of the short film selections in the Nippon Digital screenings as I can.... though it will be hard to decide what films from the Nippon Cinema screenings to miss out on. I am glad to see that they are doing two screenings of some of the more popular selections this year. I'm sure, for example, that Tokyo Sonata and Genius Party are high on everyone's list of films to see!

The films up for the Nippon Cinema Award this year are:

20th Century Boys (Yukihiko Tsutsumi)
Detroit Metal City (Toshio Lee)
Genius Party Beyond (Maeda, et al.)
Genius Party (Fukushima, et al.)
GS Wonderland (Ryuichi Honda)
Hells (Yoshinobu Yamakawa)
The Kiss (Kunitoshi Manda)
Nightmare Detective 2 (Shinya Tsukamoto)
Non-ko (Kazuyoshi Kumakiri) -- movie poster above! --
Parting Present (Mamoru Watanabe)
Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Talk, Talk, Talk (Hideyuki Hirayama)

The Nippon Connection site (follow the above links) gives links to official sites for all these films. Nippon Connection recently posted the following promo showing just how awesome last year's festival was (see below). This year promises to be equally as exciting.

Wings of Defeat

Chris MacGee recently published an amazing interview with Japanese-American director Risa Morimoto about her documentary Wings of Defeat, which premiered at the HotDocs festival in Toronto back in 2007. The film is about kamikaze pilots during the Pacific War with moving interviews with both pilots who trained as kamikazes but survived the war and Americans who witnessed and survived kamikaze attacks. It is high on my wish list of films to see. Those of you in North America can catch it on PBS on May 5th. It is also now available on DVD. Here is the trailer for the film, followed by a clip from the supplementary documentary following the reception of the film by American veterans.

02 March 2009

Film of the Sea (海の映画, 2007)

Takashi Ishida (石田尚志, b.1972) is an abstract animation and installation artist in the vein of Norman McLaren, Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, and Mary Ellen Bute. Not only is Ishida on the cutting edge of the contemporary Japanese art film and installation scene, but he has also made waves internationally with his work. He has most recently been spending a lot of time in Canada where he has done screenings of his works in Toronto at Trinity Square Video and Cinématheque Ontario. His work is currently included in a Projection Series at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal which runs until March 29th.

Aurora included Ishida’s 2007 Umi no Eiga (海の映画/Film of the Sea, mini-DV, 12 min.) in its recent DVD collection of the best works from their 2008 festival. Other artists featured on the DVD include Sophie Michael (UK), Vanessa O’Neill (USA), Chris Kennedy (USA/Canada), Samantha Rebello (UK), Lin de Mol (Netherlands), Charlotte Pryce (USA), Sara MacLean (Canada), Yeon Jeong Kim (South Korea), Philippe Gerlach (Austria), and Stefan Kushima (Austria).

Umi no Eiga was created over a period of four months at the Yokohama Museum of Art. The initially plain white room of the art gallery plays a significant role in the making of meaning in the film. A lone film projector has been placed in the room and it projects a seascape image centrally on the wall in the same position at which a painting would be hung. Then, however, Ishida blurs the boundaries between projected film and traditional art gallery space by using stop motion to create the effect of blue paint flowing out of the projected image of the sea, continuing down the wall and flooding out onto the floor of the gallery.

The film then follows a pattern of creating and erasing oppositions: negative versus positive space, inside versus outside, light versus dark, blue (or black) versus white, movement versus stasis, sound versus silence, consonance versus dissonance, and so on. The animation of the room full of swirling waves of paint, and then its erasure again mimics the perpetual flowing of the tide in and out on the beach. The result is truly mesmerizing.

The metaphor of the sea is complex in the multitude of ways in which it can be interpreted. The sea is a symbol of constancy, with the waves rolling in and back out again, and yet the sea is also ever-changing as the waves never form themselves in the same pattern twice. Ishida’s sea can be seen as a metaphor for Ishida’s stop motion art itself which can never be reproduced in exactly the same fashion. The process of making the film also resulted in multiple ways of ‘seeing’ or experiencing the art process, including an installation version called Wall of the Sea (海の壁 -生成する庭) with three synchronized screens. On his website, Ishida describes the installation as follows:

In this installation, three different images which were shot in the same room are projected by three projectors. The one image is various retakes of the images of the sea which projected by a film projector put in a room, and another two images are the images of the drawing animations expanded to the room. Originally, the image which was made by projecting from the projector in the rectangle is "the right Film", but, in this work, images spread from the rectangle to the whole of the room by a large quantity of paint. Occasionally the screen fell down and was flooded and sank in a room. This work is an experiment to expand the image from the structure of the film. Then through those variations of many results, this work will try to let audiences regard "what is the image".

Ishida seems particularly concerned with the fluidity shape, surfaces, frames, and boundaries in his oeuvre. Shapes and surfaces are there to be manipulated, while frames and boundaries are meant to be crossed. In particular, Ishida blurs the boundaries between genres with his work using elements from film, painting, performance, and sculpture. Keep an eye on Ishida's news updates here to see if his work might soon be featuring at a gallery, cinématheque, or festival near you.

Thinking and Drawing / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009


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