31 July 2010

Locked Out (ロックアウト, 2009)

Shinsedai Festival

Yasunobu Takahashi’s debut feature film Locked Out (ロックアウト, 2009) tells two parallel stories that the hands of fate bring together in the parking lot of a supermarket.

Kiichi Sonobe (Sodom the Killer) stars as Hiroshi, an apparently down-and-out young man driving directionlessly into an uncertain future. Hiroshi is clearly haunted by an event in his recent past, but exactly what has happened to him is not made clear initially. The psychological trauma that he is experiencing reveals itself in dramatic dream sequences triggered by the smallest of incidents. For example, perceived impoliteness by a waiter in a diner sets off a Reservoir Dogs-like dream sequence in which Hiroshi plays a violent starring role.
 Hiroshi's psychological trauma reveals itself in nightarish Resevoir Dogs-esque dream sequences.

Meanwhile, 6-year-old Keita (played charmingly by Takeru Shimada) and his harried mother Shoko (Miho Ogata of Space Travelers), are on an expedition to the supermarket. In a typical mother-son scene, Keita begs his mother to buy him a set of cards for him to trade with his friends, but his mother refuses. When Shoko has to run back into the store to purchase an item that she had forgotten, young Keita sneaks out of the family car to steal the cards he so desired. Upon his return to the parking lot, he mistakenly climbs into Hiroshi’s car and thus begins an unlikely friendship between the scared young boy and the depressed young man.
The narrative paths of Keita and Hiroshi collide..

Using fairly straightforward narrative and cinematic techniques, director Yasunobu Takahashi leads his audience into presuming the worst of Hiroshi, just as Keita’s mother and the police officer presume the worst when they see the minor cut on Keita’s face together with Hiroshi’s disheveled appearance. As the story inexorably unravels itself, we learn that appearances often belie the complicated realities beneath the surface.

At the centre of Locked Out is a well-told story supported by stellar acting performances and capable cinematography by Testuya Takahashi (Marriage Ring). For a cast and crew with relatively little experience, they managed to pull off a very professionally shot and edited film that manages to avoid the usual pitfalls of a first time film.
 Scene-stealing young actor Takeru Shimada as Keita

I spoke with Yasunobu Takahashi at Shinsedai Cinema Festival and learned that he was not a cinéphile as a kid but rather that filmmaking was something that he discovered as a passion as an adult. In the mid-1990s he travelled to California in order to improve his English, and rather than take ESL classes decided to take a film production course instead. The moment he held a camera in his hand, he was seduced by the art of cinematography.

Since that time, he has honed his skills making short films (see filmography below) and started his own independent production company On the road films. Takahashi writes, directs, and produces his own films because he enjoys having control of all stages of production. He is currently in the process of writing his next feature film. His filmmaking process begins with writing, as for Takahashi the essential element of a good film is the story and the characters. How he directs his films grows out of the human drama at the core of the film.

I was impressed with Takahashi’s passion for filmmaking and hope to see some of his short films in order to get a better idea of how he has developed as a film director. Someone with such enthusiasm and dedication to his craft is definitely one to watch in the future. I applaud Shinsedai Cinema Festival, and also Raindance and  Nippon Connection where Locked Out played in 2009, for supporting young, upcoming talent like Yasunobu Takahashi.

Yasunobu Takahashi

Tetsuya Takahashi

Original Score
Katsuhito Teshirogi

Kiichi Sonobe as Hiroshi
Miho Ogata as Shoko
Takeru Shimada as Keita
Tomomi Miyashita as Yuri
Noboru Akima as Kazuhiro
Hiroh Suzuki as Saito
Hiroyuki Yamamoto as the Guard
Yutaka Ohnuki as Nagata
Keisaku Kimura as the Officer

Yasunobu Takahashi Filmography

1997 Personal Time Frames (6‘, 16mm, B&W)
2000 The Age (32’, DV)
2004 Rule of No Intervention (24’, DV)
2004 Falling Life (23’, 8mm/DV)
2008 Locked Out (82’, HDV)

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

30 July 2010

The Water Magician (滝の白糸, 1933)

Shinsedai Festival
Last Friday night at Shinsedai, I had the great pleasure of watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Water Magician (aka Cascading White Threads, Taki no Shiraito, 1933) with live accompaniment by the experimental pop band Vowls.

The Water Magician is one of a handful of Mizoguchi’s surviving silent feature films. It is a significant film historically, for it was at a screening of the film in 1972 that Midori Sawato (澤登 翠) first heard the benshi Shunsui Matsuda (松田春翠, 1925-1987) perform. Sawato became his pupil and has worked diligently ever since to keep the benshi (silent film narrator) tradition alive in Japan. The film that was projected at Shinsedai is one that Matsuda Films helped preserve and is available through Digital Meme

The Digital Meme DVD includes the choice of two benshi performances with English subtitles. For this performance, there was no benshi, only the subtitles and the emotion and narrative tension were supplied by the musical performance.
The video transfer of The Water Magician runs quite quickly as it was not shot in 24 fps. Silent films were shot at variable speeds of between 16-23 seconds and it is likely that The Water Magician screened at 2 hours originally instead of its current 90 minutes. The Japanese title cards flashed by at a speed too fast to read, but a Japanese audience would rely more heavily on the benshi narration than the title cards for plot information.

The Water Magician tells the story of a 24 year old woman who makes a living performing a water act as part of a travelling ensemble which includes a knife thrower and other amusements. Her age is significant for in Japan it was a commonly held belief that if a woman were not married by the age of 25 she would be considered an old maid or, as it is known colloquially, “Christmas Cake”. Taki no Shiraito is considered the most beautiful woman in the region, but she dreams of one day marrying and having a family.

Fate throws into Shiraito’s path a young coachman by the name of Kinya Murakoshi. Kin-san is only a year older than Shiraito, and has endured much tragedy in his life. When Shiraito hears his story of losing both of his parents and having to quit school in order to earn a meager living, she offers to pay for his education. In return, he promises her that when he has become a great man, of who his samurai family would be proud he will return to make her dream come true.  Fate again intervenes, this time with tragic consequences.
Even at this early stage of his career, Mizoguchi already demonstrates a keen eye for poetic framing. The scenes of Shiraito on the bridge in the moonlight, the key metaphor of the film, are so beautifully rendered that one could image each still framed on the wall of a gallery. The emotion of the film is carried on the faces of Shiraito and Kin-san. For a silent film, it does rely quite heavily on the benshi perfomance, which meant a lot of reading at this screening.

Before the performance, I asked Naomi Hocura of Vowls (limited edition 7" available via website) about how they prepared the accompanying music. Brandon Hocura had composed some themes specifically for the film, and they had cues marked for certain moments when sound effects or particular emotions needed to be brought to the fore. Apart from this skeletal framework, their performance was mainly improvisational. The group played a wide variety of instruments including electric guitar, keyboards, harmonium, drum and a wide variety of other percussive instruments. One of the more innovative effects, used to emphasize the water theme, was a PET bottle half-filled with water with a mic taped to it. During some of the more lyrical passages, Naomi Hocura also sang in a wordless, haunting way that reminded me of Loreena McKennitt.

The music complemented the film and for me emphasized the sensuality of the film --- Takako Irie's performance as Taki no Shiraito in particular. The entire audience seemed mesmerized by the performance which I hope becomes a regular feature at Shinsedai Cinema Festival – the music truly made the silent film very relevant for a young generation of spectators. One sign that the music was effective was the amount of weeping in the audience during the final scenes of the film.

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

Written by Kyōka Izumi

Cinematography by Minoru Miki


Takako Irie as Taki no Shiraito (aka Tomo Mizushima)
Tokihiko Okada as Kinya Murakoshi
Bontarō Miake as Shinzo
Suzuko Taki as Nadeshiko
Ichirō Sugai as Gozo Iwabuchi

3-DVD "Saikaku Ichidai Onna," "Gion Zoshi," "Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain)" / Japanese Movie
"Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain)"
Japanese Movie
3-DVD "Yuki Fujin Ezu (Portrait of Madame Yuki)," "Musashino Fujin (The Lady of Musashino)," "Oyusama" / Japanese Movie
"Musashino Fujin (The Lady of Musashino)," "Oyusama"
Japanese Movie
Akasen Chitai / Japanese Movie
Japanese Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

10 July 2010

The Girl at Dojo Temple (娘道成寺 , 1945)

Kon Ichikawa (市川 崑, 1915-2008) had a long and varied career, attaining great acclaim as the director of such classics as The Burmese Harp (1956), Fires on the Plain (1959), and Tokyo Olympiad (1965). At heart, however, Ichikawa considered himself a cartoonist, telling Donald Richie that after Charlie Chaplin, the biggest influence on his films was Walt Disney.

Each monk in Musume Dojoji has a very different personality to 
their face and character movement - much like the dwarfs from
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Walt Disney, 1937)

Many of the films that Kon Ichikawa worked on as an animator and assistant director at J.O. Studios and later Toho were considered lost for over half a decade. When Cinematheque Ontario published their book honouring the career of Kon Ichikawa in 2001, Ichikawa’s puppet film The Girl at Dojo Temple (Musume Dojoji, 1945) was considered unquestionably lost. In an interview with Yuki Mori, Ichikawa admitted that he had no idea what had happened to the film, though he had kept his original screenplay and storyboards.

Sample pages from Ichikawa's storyboards

Ichikawa began Musume Dōjōji several months before the end of the war. It was one of several puppet projects intended for an international audience. As puppet films were not considered of very high stature, Toho allowed assistant directors like Ichikawa and Tatsuma (Tacchan) Asano a chance to direct. They were free to choose their own material. Ichikawa began adapting the story Hana by Ryunokuke Akutagawa (whose stories had been the basis of Kurosawa’s Rashomon), but changed his mind and decided to tackle the classical kabuki play Musume Dōjōji instead because he felt he could use it to convey the beauty of Japanese culture. 

Originally, Ichikawa intended the film to be a stop motion animation. It is unclear if it was financial or time constraints that led to the film being shot with live action marionettes instead of stop motion. One short sequence in the film, the cracking of the bell, uses animation techniques to depict the explosion.

The script was co-written by Ichikawa’s friend and long time collaborator Keiji Hasebe, who worked on dozens of Ichikawa films including Kokoro (1955), Odd Obsession (Kagi, 1959), and Enjo (1958), not to mention also co-writing The Insect Woman (1963) and Murderous Instincts (1964) with Shohei Imamura. The studio arranged for some of the greatest performers of the day to participate including traditional puppet master Yuki Magozaburo, singer Ishiro Yoshimura, and shamisen player Kisaburo Okayasu. The music was composed by the great Tadashi Hattori (1908-2008) who composed the scores of films like Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) not to mention Kenzo Masaoka’s Tora-chan animated shorts.
Use of cherry blossoms as a seasonal and metaphorical motif.

Although the film was completed before the war’s end, it fell victim to bad timing. The war finished before the film could be released. The censoring arm of the American Occupation’s GHQ (General Headquarters) required film scripts to acquire censorship approval before shooting. As Ichikawa’s film had already been shot, it was refused permission to publically screen. Ichikawa’s film also had a strike against it because it used Japanese traditional culture as its source material. Because Japanese traditional culture had been used extensively in Japanese war propaganda, the Americans suppressed any depiction of feudal Japan at the movies in favour of more contemporary tales.

In the intervening decades, it was believed that the film was confiscated by the GHQ censors, but I have a feeling that the truth was much more mundane. I am still tracking down information concerning the circumstances of the film’s recent rediscovery. I have a feeling that the film was simply shelved and forgotten about at Toho. In 2008, Kadogawa Pictures rectified the years of neglect by finally releasing Musume Dōjōji to the general public. It appears on the DVD Style of Kon Ichikawa: Art + CM + Animation alongside Shinsetsu Kachi Kachi Yama (Ichikawa’s directorial debut), dozens of commercials that Ichikawa directed throughout his career, and a poetic documentary Ichikawa made about Kyoto.

Contrast of long shots and extreme close-ups 
are a trademark of the Ichikawa style 
The puppet movement in the film is graceful and expressive.

The original kabuki tale Musume Dōjōji is one of the most famous dance-dramas of the genre. In this ancient legend, the young woman Kiyohime performs a series of dances that follow her character arc from innocence, through frustration, into her final transformation as a vengeful serpent/demon. The tale has many variants. Kihachirō Kawamoto faithfully adapted, in all its horror, the most common version as a puppet animation in Dojoji Temple (Dōjōji, 1979). In this version, Anchin is monk who is making a pilgrimage. The young maiden, Kiyohime, encounters him and immediately falls in love with him, but Anchin resists her charms. She transforms herself into a serpent and chases after him. Anchin seeks refuge at the temple of Dōjō where the monks hide him under their great bell. Kiyohime as the serpent/demon wraps herself around the great bell and with her fire heats the bell. When the monks finally lift the bell, Anchin has been burnt to a crisp.
The only evidence of the serpent motif in this adaptation
is the adornment at the top of the bell.

In an interview with Yuki Mori, Ichikawa said that rather than just relaying the original story of Anchin and Kiyohime, he “wanted a more abstract and creative story of a young bell maker and a princess who helps him.” Ichikawa also takes a much more sympathetic view of Kiyohime transforming her from a vengeful female figure into one who is self-sacrificing. In this tale, Kiyohime becomes the central figure, with her dance becoming the climax of the film.

In Ichikawa’s adaptation Anchin is the mason making the bell. The other monks are hard at work sweeping the cherry blossom leaves and Anchin’s workers are toiling over the bell’s construction. Kiyohime peers around the edge of the bell and spots Anchin and falls in love, but he is too concerned with his work to pay her any notice. Then, disaster strikes, and the bell suddenly cracks and falls into pieces. Anchin is devastated and falls into despair. Kiyohime begins to pray to a large statue of a Bodhisattva (ボーディ・サットヴァ or 菩薩 / bosatsu). As Kiyohime prays long into the night, the moon rises symbolically behind the head of the Bodhisattva. The moon is used often as a symbol in Buddhist art as it represents the Buddha’s knowledge and virtue and symbolizes the aspirations of sentient beings to attain Buddhahood.

  Repetition of framing as a storytelling device.

The light of the moon falls upon Anchin and he races to his kiln which is firing on its own, until suddenly his great bell, with the figure of a serpent at its top stands completed before him. He approaches Kiyohime, who is still in prayer at the foot of the Bodhisattva, but when he reaches out to touch her she falls to the ground lifeless. Kiyohime has sacrificed her own life in order to restore the bell to the temple. At the next falling of the cherry blossom leaves, the spirit of Kiyohime reappears at the foot of the Bodhisattva and she begins to dance in celebration of the bell. Her dance, accompanied by the strains of a shamisen, is so captivating that the monks join in with her. When her climactic dance draws to a close, the image of her waving is superposed with a shot of the bell spinning wildly. The film ends with an image of Anchin looking up (to the moon/to the bell?) reverentially.
Use of extreme angles for dramatic effect

Ichikawa’s skill as a director is already apparent in this film. He uses a wide variety of camera distances, often contrasting long shots with close ups. He also maintains visual interest through camera movement and editing. For such a short film, quite a large number of edits are employed, especially in contrast with many filmmakers of the day. Ichikawa also uses light and shade in a very expressive manner. Although the film concerns itself with a narrative exposition, dialogue is used only sparingly and conveyed via jōruri narration and song. The story may belong to a traditional theatrical tradition, but Ichikawa’s adaptation of the story is purely cinematic.

Poetic use of light and shade... 
not to mention silhouette

The war coming to a close effectively ended Ichikawa’s career as an animator / puppet filmmaker. He had actually started shooting a second puppet film in the months leading up to the end of the war called I Became a Cat, But. . . (Neko niwa natte mitakeredo). While the title may sound similar to the satirical novel by Natsume Soseke I am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru), which Kon Ichikawa adapted into a film in 1975, it was actually an original story in which a mouse transforms into a cat. When Japan lost the war, the film got shelved.  It is fascinating to speculate how different the history of puppet animation in Japan would have been if Ichikawa had been able to continue in this genre. 

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

Style of Kon Ichikawa - Art + CM + Animation /
 Japanese Movie
Japanese Movie

Kon Ichikawa

Kon Ichikawa & Keiji Hasebe
(based on a classical story)

Tadashi Hattori

Puppet Master
Yuki Magozaburo

Ishiro (aka Ijiuro) Yoshimura

Kisaburo Okayasu

The Kon Ichikawa Story (English Subtitles) / Japanese Movie


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