31 May 2010

Shinsetsu Kachi Kachi Yama (新説カチカチ山, 1936)

Kon Ichikawa (市川崑, 1915-2008) is most famous for his feature film output including such masterpieces as The Burmese Harp (ビルマの竪琴, 1956), Fires on the Plain (野火, 1959) Alone on the Pacific (太平洋ひとりぼっち, 1963), and the documentary Tokyo Olympiad (東京オリンピック, 1965).  In his youth, Ichikawa adored the animation of Walt Disney. The Silly Symphonies inspired him to join the talkie animation department at J.O. Studios in Kyoto in 1933. He began as an assistant animator and learned on the job how to write scenarios, colour cels, and edit films.  In1936 he wrote, directed, animated, and edited a “manga eiga”, as animation was known in those days, called Shinsetsu Kachi Kachi Yama (新説カチカチ山).

The film belongs to  the J.O. Studios series Hana yori Dangonosuke (花より団子の助). The main protagonist of this series, Dangonosuke, is a cross between the Japanese folk hero Momotaro and Mickey Mouse. Unlike today’s anime which starts with the animation and adds the soundtrack afterwards, J.O. Studios followed the American system of beginning with a scenario and recording the soundtrack before drawing the animation. In many ways, animation was an experimental process at the studio, with the animators studying American animation for inspiration. It was labour intensive work, with not as much financial reward as for feature films.  Ichikawa was actually forced to take over all aspects of the animation of Shinsetsu Kachi Kachi Yama himself when the studio started cutting back staff in order to concentrate their efforts on feature films.

The story could be considered a sequel to the traditional story Kachi Kachi Yama, one of the few Japanese tales in which a Tanuki (racoon-dog) is a bad character. The original story is a brutal tale about a Tanuki who commits terrible crimes.  A Hare witnesses these crimes and punishes the Tanuki for them.  In Ichikawa’s sequel, the Tanuki seeks revenge by kidnapping the Hare and Dangonosuke chases after them to rescue  him. The brutality (not unlike the brutality of the original Grimm fairy tales) of the traditional story is softened substantially, which suggests that children were the intended audience.

The animation has 3 planes: a background, middle ground, and foreground and is animated fairly simply. The character movement lacks the fluidity of the Disney animation that Ichikawa was trying to emulate. This was a year before the groundbreaking release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and even the Silly Symphonies were already of a very high quality and in colour by the mid 1930s. Kenzo Masaoka’s 1935 talkie version of Chagama Ondo (茶釜音頭/A Dance Song with a Kettle) also has much smoother character movement and transitions than Shinsetsu Kachi Kachi Yama. However, taking into account that Ichikawa was a novice animator and he had to do most of the production himself (direction, animation, cinematography and editing), the film is not so bad. The film’s biggest flaw is the music, composed by Akio Nishiyama, which doesn’t match the instruments that are shown.

Historically the film is fascinating because of how closely Ichikawa emulates Disney’s character style. Most of the eyes are black and oval – quite unlike the wide-eyed Bambi eyes that are associated with anime characters today. Bambi came out in 1942, which would mean that Japanese animators like Osamu Tezkua would not have seen it until after the war. 

While watching Shinsetsu Kachi Kachi Yama, I was reminded of Steamboat Willie (1928).... and not just because of the attempt at coordination of music and animation.  In the screencap of Steamboat Willie below, notice the body shape of the 'bad' character Captain Peg-Leg Pete: 
The 'bad' Tanuki in Kachi Kachi Yama has a similar size, body shape, features, and movement:
The animals in the orchestra. . .
. . .  resemble in facial features, body shape, and character movement of the animals in early Disney shorts like this cow in Steamboat Willie:

Here is a screencap of the hero, Dangosuke, looking at a book of the original Kachi Kachi Yama story for inspiration on how to fight the Tanuki:
Dangosuke's eyes and face, hair, and even his shoes resemble that of Mickey Mouse, but compare him in this photo, where he had called some warrior friends to help:
with the Momotaro from Mitsuyo Seo's 1945 war propaganda film Momotaro: Umi no Shimpei:
Or a more contemporary representation of Momotaro for the NHK:

Since its inception, American film has influenced Japanese cinema, from Akira Kurosawa's love of John Ford to Ozu's love of silent comedies. Shinsetsu Kachi Kachi Yama sheds new light for me on just how strongly Kon Ichikawa was influenced by American cinema in the early part of his career.  The influence of Chaplin was easier to spot in his more famous works, but I didn't understand the Disney connection until I saw this animation.  It's a fascinating mixture of Japanese folklore and American animation aesthetics.

This film, which has been preserved by the National Film Center in Tokyo, had limited availability until Kadogawa Entertainment released Style of Ichikawa Kon: Art + CM + Animation on DVD in 2008. This DVD features Ichikawa’s lyrical documentary about Kyoto, Shinsetsu Kachi Kachi Yama, his puppet film Musume Dojoji (1945), as well as over 30 years worth of commercials that Ichikawa directed for companies like Suntory Whiskey and White Lion Toothpaste.

While all the films featured on this DVD were considered rare before its release, Shinsetsu Kachi Kachi Yama and Musume Dojoji are of particular historical significance. Musume Dojoji is a pre-Mochinaga/Kawamoto/Okamoto example of a puppet film made in Japan and was considered lost for decades. Shinsetsu Kachi Kachi Yama is one of the few surviving examples of animation from J.O. Studios, not to mention the fact that it is central to understanding Kon Ichikawa’s early development as a filmmaking artist. 
Style of Kon Ichikawa - Art + CM + Animation / Japanese Movie
Style of Kon Ichikawa - Art + CM + Animation

This volume includes Kachi Kachi Yama

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

15 May 2010

Toad’s Oil (ガマの油, 2009)

When visiting friends of ours in Hamanaka (Hokkaidō) many years ago, I was fascinated by obāchan’s morning and evening ritual of praying at the butsudan (仏壇) in the corner of the family’s Japanese style room. A butsudan is a Buddhist shrine found in both temples and homes and is used for praying to Buddha and to one’s deceased family members. The butsudan is often decorated with photographs of the deceased and their souls (tamashii) are belived to reside in the butsudan. Each morning obāchan would offer fresh water and rice to Buddha and the souls of the dead.

Renowned actor Kōji Yakusho (Shall We Dance, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, The Eel) also admits to a fascination with the butsudan, and thus chose it as a key metaphor in his directorial debut Toad’s Oil (Gama no abura, 2009). Yakusho himself plays the lead role of Takuro Yazawa, a wealthy middle-aged man who makes his money by high risk day trading. When his gambles bring him profit, Takuro celebrates in a juvenile way by shooting off pellet guns. His egocentric eccentricities are indulged by his wife Teruko (Satomi Kaboyashi of Kamome Shokudō and Megane) and his sweet-tempered son (Eita of Dear Doctor and Nodame Cantabile).

The Yazawas live in an oversized house with clinically white interiors. The emptiness of the house stands as a metaphor for the shallowness of the family’s existence. Takuro communicates with the outside world through technology (computers, phones) and codes, such as the one he invents with his son’s girlfriend Hikari (Fumi Nikaidō in her feature film debut), and has little to no physical or spiritual contact with others. This all changes abruptly when tragedy strikes the family and Takuro heads off on a journey that will bring him back into touch with painful and nostalgic memories from his childhood while teaching him to face head on the grief and emotional challenges of the present.

The screenplay contains many touches added from Yakusho’s own personal experiences. For example, the flashback scene in which a young Takuro climbs up to the top of the butsudan to clean it on the advice of a travelling salesman, was inspired by a real incident in Yakusho’s life. Such travelling salespeople were commonplace in the Edo period selling folk medicine such as gama no abura (oil from the Japanese common toad) and a few continue working up until this day. The salesman and his wife act as a link between modern Japan and a past filled with tradition and legend. The salespeople are not just selling folk medicine but folk wisdom as well. The salesman reminds Takuro that people die twice: the first time is the physical death and the second one is the spiritual death when people stop remembering you.

At times I found Toad’s Oil a bit indulgent in terms of pacing – in my opinion, Soichi Ueno (Oh, My Buddha!, Dai Nihonjin, The Uchōten Hotel) should have convinced Yakusho to shave off some of the scenes to get the film under two hours in length – yet viewers should remain patient because the film does not give up all its secrets until the very end. Like the Oscar-winning film Departures, Toad’s Oil, opens a fascinating window into the relationship that the Japanese have with death and dying. While the film is thematically and visually rooted in Japanese culture, it has a message that can be universally identified with: that the spirits of loved ones who have passed away will continue to exist as long as we remember and cherish them.

Directed by
Original Story by
Kōji YAKUSHO and Hideko NAKATA
Screenplay by
Cinematography by
Toyomichi KURITA
Featuring music by

Takuro Yazawa • Kōji YAKUSHO
Terumi Yazawa • Satomi KOBAYASHI
Takuya Yazawa • Eita
Hikari Horie • Fumi NIKAIDO
Saburo Akiba • Junichi SAWAYASHIKI
Kōtaro • Tōru MASUOKA

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

12 May 2010

Glasses (めがね, 2007)

An island community like no other Taeko has ever experienced.

The Frühstücksfilm (Breakfast Film) is a popular annual event at Nippon Connection. The screening takes place on the final morning of the festival . In addition to the screening of a film sponsored by the Japan Foundation of Cologne (Japanischen Kulturinstitut Köln), guests are treated to an elegant buffet brunch. Past years have featured such popular films as Shinobu Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (2004) in 2007, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda Linda Linda (2005) in 2008, and Yoji Yamada’s Twilight Samurai (2002) in 2009.

This year’s film choice, Naoko Ogigami’s Megane (Glasses, 2007), was also very popular and the event sold out before the festival had even started on Wednesday the 14th. Guests began queuing at least a half hour before the film and I spoke to at least a dozen people who had loved Ogigami’s surprise hit Kamome shokudō (Seagull Diner, 2005) and wanted to see more of her work . Kamome shokudō, which I wrote about when it came out on DVD in Japan, was a word-of-mouth sensation. It had been recommended to me by the staff at the Moomin Bakery & Café in Korakuen – who clearly identified with the idea of Japanese women running a café in Finland. The Japanese women I met outside the Frühstücksfilm didn’t care about getting any breakfast, they just wanted to see Ogigami’s latest film.
The culinary skills of Nami Iijima.

I was lucky enough to be offered a bench seat out of the way of the paying customers, and the experience did not disappoint. I had been concerned that the sound of people eating might distract from my enjoyment of the film, as Ogigami’s films tend to keep dialogue at a minimum. Fortunately, the comforting sound of the 16mm projector, which was in the room with us, muffled the clinking sounds of cutlery and clatter of tea cups hitting their saucers. Many guests have been coming to this event for years, and most wait patiently for the brief intermission for the changing of the reels to help themselves to seconds at the buffet.

Megane tells the story of a career woman Taeko (Satomi Kobayashi) who has travelled to a remote island community to get away from the stresses of her life. It is a classic fish-out-of-water tale that contrasts the holiday expectations of someone used to an urban lifestyle with the slower paced lifestyle of people living on the island. Instead of finding peace and tranquility at the Hanada inn, Taeko is puzzled by their seemingly (in her eyes at any rate) eccentric lifestyle.
Taeko: "Could you advise me on the best places for sightseeing?"
Sakura & Yuji are puzzled by her request.

On her first morning at the inn, Taeko is awoken at the crack of dawn by Sakura-san (Masako Motai) kneeling next to her futon announcing Ohayo gozaimasu (Good morning) and inviting her to join their Merci taisō (thank you exercises) on the beach. Taeko declines, but every morning she is awoken by the piano music that accompany these beach excises which are like a cross between the popular NHK radio taisō and some of Sakura-san’s own special exercises designed to greet the morning “Dämmerung” (sunrise).
A touch of Ozu in the cinematography.

The German term “Dämmerung” (dawn/dusk) seems more fitting that the term “twilighting”, which from reading other reviews of this film seems to be the English version’s translation of the Japanese tasogare (黄昏). I have I think that the old Scottish word "gloaming" may be more adequate – though a bit archaic apart from in the campfire song: “Fire's burning, fire's burning, Draw nearer, draw nearer , In the gloaming, in the gloaming, Come sing and be merry.”

The reasons why Taeko has run away from her urban life to this anonymous island are deliberately kept unclear so that the spectator can imagine themselves in her shoes. It is the story of a woman’s journey to find inner peace. Taeko must learn to let go of the structures that have contained her life for so long and learn how to appreciate the simple pleasures in life: eating kakigōri (shaved ice flavoured with syrup) on the beach and greeting the dawn of the new day with open arms.

Ogigami uses simple metaphors such as Yuji’s special maps, Koji the dog’s freedom to roam, and Sakura’s Merci Taisōto reveal the story without extraneous dialogue. The exposition is assisted by the expressiveness of the cast including Satomi Kobayashi (Kamome Shokudō, Toad’s Oil), Masako Motai (Kamome Shokudō, Barber Yoshino), Mikako Ichikawa (Memories of Matsuko), Ken Mitsuishi (Twentieth Century Boys, Kakera), and Ryo Kase (Letters from Iwo Jima, Honey and Clover). Not to mention the lyrical score by Takahiro Kaneko.
Interiors straight out of a catalogue.

Encapsulating the themes of the film is a German poem that Taeko’s student, Yomogi, who follows her to the island, recites at about three-quarters of the way into the film. Japanese reviews of the film seem to be as stumped as I am as to who the poet is. I have asked a number of well-read Germans who are also puzzled as to its origins (possibly Peter Härtling?). I transcribe the poem here in German as well as in English in the hopes that someone recognizes it and posts a comment:

Mir ist bewusst was Freiheit bedeutet
Folge dem Wege geradeaus,
meide die Tiefen des Meeres,
doch hab ich solch Wort hinter mir gelassen.
Der Mond scheinet auf jedem Wege,
wie die in der Dunkelheit wie Diamanten schwimmenden Fische;
heiß wie durch Zufall Mensch - und hier bin ich.
Was hatte ich zu befürchten,
mit was zu kämpfen,
bald ist es Zeit die Lasten zu legen.
Erteile mir noch mehr Kraft,
Kraft zur Liebe.
Mir ist bewusst was Freiheit bedeutet,
mir ist bewusst was Freiheit bedeutet.

I know what Freedom is.
Follow the path straight ahead.
Keep out of the ocean deeps
I have left such words behind me
The Moon shines upon all paths
like Fish who swim like Diamonds in the Dark
Called a human being by chance – so here I am
What did I have to fear?
Against what was I struggling?
It’s time for me to lay down my heavy load.
Give me even more strength,
Strength to love.
I know what Freedom is.
I know what Freedom is.

An aside:

In Mark Schilling’s review of Megane, he wondered if such places as Hamada’s beachside inn actually exist in Japan and suggested that the film was designed to appeal to the romantic imaginations of urban women. Having travelled extensively in Hokkaido, I can attest to the authenticity of the setting (though the film was shot on the opposite end of Japan on Yoron Island in Okinawa – which unlike in the movie does have fancy resort style hotels).

While watching Megane, I was reminded of the youth hostel on the remote northern island of Rishiri which wakes its guests with music at 7am and expects everyone to leave the premises immediately after breakfast. Taeko’s refusal to eat meals with the folks running the establishment would be seen as very rude. A Hokkaido minshuku/B&B/pension like Ashita no Jo (あしたの城 - famous for their gyunyu-nabe) in Sarobetsu or Moomin Mura (ムーミン村) in Hidaka is often like one is like staying as a guest with a family. One arrives before six in the evening and eats together with the hosts and other guests. Guests then get a chance to use the ofuro (お風呂 / Japanese style bath) in the order in which they came. One breakfasts early with the family and even if one is staying for several nights, the guest would be expected to make oneself scarce until evening. It is a great way to get to know people when travelling in rural parts of Japan, from adventurous cyclists to people making Buddhist pilgrimages. If one plans on going hiking in the morning, the hosts will usually make up some onigiri for guests to take with them for lunch.

Megane does a wonderful job of depicting a remote community peopled not only by locals but by refugees of urban society.  The contrast between what one imagines the countryside or seaside to be like, as opposed to what it actually is has become a theme of many films recently from Dear Doctor to One Million Yen Girl.   Filmmakers seem to be tapping into the growing slow life (スローライフ) movement in Japan: a desire to escape the pressures of city life for a slower pace.  For anyone in need of a visual change of pace, Megane is the perfect antidote to the trite 3D fare Hollywood's been throwing at us of late (see: Roger Ebert: Why I Hate 3D (and you should too)).

Director / Screenplay
Naoko Ogigami
Minebobu Tani
Takahiro Kaneko
Food Stylist
Nami Iijima

Taeko • Satomi Kobayashi
Haruna • Mikako Ichikawa
Yomogi • Ryo Kase
Yuji • Ken Mitsuishi
Taeko’s friend • Hiroko Yakushimaru
Koji (the dog) • Ken

Megane (English Subtitles) / Japanese Movie
Japanese Movie

Kamome Shokudo (English Subtitles) / Japanese Movie
Japanese Movie

Barber Yoshino / Japanese Movie
Japanese Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

The Ramen Girl (ラーメンガール, 2008)

 Lost in Translation: Traditional Chef Master?  It's a Mom & Pop ramen shop!

An amusing discussion took place on Facebook this week about whether or not The Ramen Girl (Robert Alan Ackerman, 2008) was a “surprisingly good film” or the exact opposite. As I did’t feel comfortable totally discrediting a film for which I had only seen the trailer, I decided to watch it  I had great hopes that it would be so bad that it was funny à la Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959). Sadly, it was not meant to be. The film is only mediocre, despite the best efforts of the Japanese cast to breathe some life into it.
 Confusing marketing.  Is this film about ramen or sex?

My short review of the film would be: “typical in-flight movie fare”, but for the edification of aspiring film directors and producers out there, here are some of my suggestions on what would have made this a much better film:

If you want a great feature film, don’t hire an American TV director. I confess that while I am unfamiliar with the work of Robert Alan Ackerman, in my judgment it is very rare for a longstanding American TV director to make the crossover successfully into cinematic fare. They pick up too many small screen habits (too much dialogue, not enough visual WOW factor).

Charlie & Gretchen “Cheers! Welcome to Japan”

Cast the English-speaking supporting cast with cinema actors (instead of theatre& TV actors). Watching the over-the-top performances of the English Toff (straight out a Merchant Ivory production circa 1985) and the faux Southern Belle Hostess did not make me laugh. Rather it drudged up long repressed memories of creepy eikaiwa teachers hitting on their unsuspecting students. Shudder. Did producer / casting director Yōko Narahashi (Babel) delegate the casting of foreigners to her former colleague on The Last Samurai Victoria Thomas (Blood Diamond)? Or was Welsh theatre actor and director Daniel Evans told to ham it up like Naoto Takenaka as Stresemann in Nodame Canabile? Which brings me to the most likely source of the comedy gone wrong: the direction. As it is doubtful that the direction was “lost in translation” between the English speaking director and his English speaking cast, we must thank whoever translated the direction to the Japanese cast for bringing a few moments of sunshine to an otherwise dull script.

 Don't let Kimiko Yo languish in the background!!!

Give Kimiko Yo more screen time and dialogue. She’s amazing in every movie (Dear Doctor, Departures) I’ve seen her in. ‘Nuff said.

Hire a Japanese composer. Carlo Siliotto’s music sounded as if it was inspired by old Hollywood notions of “Asian motifs” (à la Franz Waxman’s cheesy score for Sayonara). If you want Japanese flavour that is also sentimental, I recommend contemporary composers like Takahiro Kaneko (Megane, Pool), or Neko Saito (Toad’s Oil) or Fumikazu Sakamaki (Tomoyasu Murata’s animated films). . . the list of possibilities is endless really.

 If the film’s about Japanese food hire Nami Iijima as your food stylist. Her work on Naoko Ogigami’s films Megane (my review) and Kamome Shōkudo (my review) is beyond reproach. Ditto Chef of the South Pole (my review), which featured handmade ramen as a key plot point. I learned so much about the making of ramen while watching Makoto Sakai do it in Chef of the South Pole that I was shocked that The Ramen Girl seemed only to be about broth and toppings and not about the noodles themselves. If you want us to believe that your characters are having a Like Water For Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate, Alfonso Arau, 1992) moment, the film must be a feast for the eyes as well:
 Ramen done Nami Iijima style (Chef of the South Pole, 2009) 
- compare the expression of delight on the actor's face:

To the suffering endured by the actors in The Ramen Girl:
Oh, the agony! If only the director were Alfonso Arau!
 "I feel Brittany Murphy's sorrow at the direction this plot is taking!"
cries the lady with the pink scrunchie in her hair

Improve the on-screen rapport between the lead actress and her sensei. Toshiyuki Nishida (Sukiyaki Western Django, The Uchoten Hotel) nailed his performance in this film, but there was clearly a lack of connection between him and Brittany Murphy. Not only did they never have a proper discussion in Japanese, which seemed very rude of “Abby”, but when Brittany Murphy's blank stares during scenes when they were supposed to be connecting emotionally where bordering on disturbing. It should have looked more like this behind the scenes photograph:

Not this:
 Why can't you whine in Japanese?  
You've been working in my shop for a year now!

And finally: Tie the romantic plot line into the ramen plotline. The film would have been much more satisfying romantically speaking if she fell in love with the estranged son of the ramen shop couple instead of some random guy with no connection to ramen that she meets while out clubbing with her dodgy gaikokujin friends. No offense to Sohee Park (Tokyo!), the Zainichi actor who plays the love interest. He did an able job in English.

On a positive note, I can see the average Japanese audience reacting well to this movie - mainly because the Japanese acting is strong and the English acting may be lost in translation. Other good news:- the DVD is quite cheap in Japan:
The Ramen Girl / Movie

Robert Alan Ackerman
Becca Topol
Yoshitaka Sakamoto

Abby • Brittany Murphy
Maezumi • Toshiyuki Nishida
Reiko Maezumi • Kimiko Yo
Toshi Iwamoto • Sohee Park
Grand Master • Tsutomu Yamazaki

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010


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