Giants and Toys (1958)

29 02 2008

Yasuzo Masumura takes a different narrative approach than his New Wave peers, which started becoming a force around the time this film was made. Six years earlier, Masumura made Kisses, which most likely fits the mold of J-New Wave debuts better than this film does. Here, instead of focusing on an intimate story of angst and rebellion, he draws his attention to a more broad topic, commercialism. A forerunner to Mike Judge’s Idiocracy of all things, Masumura’s film isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s certainly unique.

Nishi is working in World Caramel’s marketing department. Though seemingly new to the workplace, he’s able to keep up on the latest from rival companies through a friend working at Giant, and his girlfriend at Apollo. World Caramels launches a huge campaign spear-headed by a naive, gap-toothed cutie named Kyoko. She immediately develops a crush on Nishi but he ignores her advances. Heartbroken, she grows bitter and controlled by the power her newfound fame brings.

While certainly as unsubtle as you can get, this does pack quite a bit of a comedic punch. At it’s very worst, it’s just a compelling plot-driven piece of cinema, much like Masumura’s own Black Test Car. If you’re looking for character development, or deep emotional involvement, you’ll be disappointed. While all the characters are captivating in their own way, they never amount to much more than two-dimensional stand-ins, carrying out a fairly predictable story. Still, you can’t fault the film’s intentions and the satire is especially biting coming out of 1958. It’s still relevant today, but listening to a Bill Hicks album on the subject matter would be more informative, more profound, and much more funny. This is a nice, charming little social commentary, though, and a lot of fun.

Il Grido (1957)

28 02 2008

After a short string of consistent, but fairly unremarkable melodramas, Michelangelo Antonioni crafts one of the most important transition pieces in the history of cinema. Finally, we begin seeing him shying away from a typical plot structure, and the much-talked about themes of his later work are thrown into play as well. It’s far from perfect, but amazing considering what Antonioni made before in comparison to what he made after.

Aldo has just been informed by his lover that her husband is dead. To him, this is great news as it ends a seven year period of secretive love. His lover, Irma, is surprsingly far less optimistic and turns down his marriage proposal, latter admitting to another affair. Stunned, he leaves town and begins to wander aimlessly (with his daughter) from town to town, reigniting past flames. His many flings leave him unsatisfied and lead him back to his feelings of perpetual loneliness.

As mentioned before, this is Antonioni’s first real attempt at his own style and the results are not as technically established as his later films but his insight into the human relationships is as profound as ever. It’s impossible to not see this films influence on stuff like The Brown Bunny and Broken Flowers, both of which pretty much follow the exact same narrative structure. Unfortunately, this film is told a bit more “straightforwardly” and is about as plot-driven as Antonioni would get, excluding his earlier films.

“That” Antonioni aesthetic is setup against a much more gritty environment, reflective of the neo-realist films of the time and the result looks a bit like a Bela Tarr film. I have always brushed off Antonioni-Tarr comparison; Where as Antonioni is perspective and attentive (not to mention real…) Tarr is overly-philosophical and feels artificial. They couldn’t be more different in my mind, but the gritty Italian homes of this film do bring to mind Tarr’s film, at least more than Antonioni’s usual picturesque landscapes. That’s not a criticism as I still see this film dealing with real human problems. Through all the turmoil, Aldo returns to Irma (or at least attempts to), as his feelings for her continue to reoccur, so does the poignantly-layered score. The ending is abrupt and silly, but the events leading up to it are bizarre and ambigious as the ending of L’Eclisse. Not Antonioni’s best, but a great film in any case.

Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935)

24 02 2008

Mikio Naruse’s most famous pre-war picture is a preview for the themes that would dominate his much more famous post-war period. Again, we see Naruse specifying his focus on underprivileged women, this time a mother and daughter that have been abandoned by the family’s patriarch. While it is covered in lots of fancy camera work and other stylistic devices that Naruse would later eliminate, it feels quite comfortable along with his personal and accomplished work.

Kimiko is ready for marriage, but she’s more focused on reuniting her own parents. Her father left years ago, and they’ve heard nothing from him since, except for money orders. Her mother has become somewhat of a recluse since then, passing the time by writing poems inspired by the loss of her love. Kimiko goes to visit her father living in the mountains, but finds that he has established another family. He has another lover and two children. Contrary to Kimiko’s (and the audience’s) expectations, her father’s new spouse feels very sorry about the situation Kimiko and her mother are in. The importance of the new family as well as their kindness, convince Kimiko that she doesn’t need to force her father back home.

As shocking as the film’s anti-dramatic climax is, it’s the mother reaction to the father’s return that makes this one. Certainly, it’s a great film without her poetry over lover, but I think such a stance represents a theme not apparent in Naruse’s later works. Perhaps I am approaching iton the surface as a mixing of priorities where as it’s simply as decision ofn the mother’s part to not bother rekindling an old flame. In that case, it eludes to memories, something Naruse will explore with a bit more depth in Floating Clouds. I am almost positive that I am reading a lot of this wrong as I didn’t connect to it immediately as much of Naruse’s post-war work. I will definitely need to make a priority of rewatching this, but until then I can say it’s a great (early) step in the right direction by one of cinema’s greatest figures.

Sudden Rain (1956)

23 02 2008

Setsuko Hara plays Fumiko, whose unsuccessful marriage has made her become more and more cynical. When her niece, Ayako visits and complains about her own marriage, she is unsurprised. Meanwhile, a new couple, whose marriage is similarly unblissful, moves in next door. The two couples create a very awkward bond that could ruin both marriages, but everyone seems to be aware and nobody cares either way.

A bit of a departure here for Naruse. Certainly he’s touched on the subject of dysfunctional marriages in the past, but not quite in the cynical and literal way he does in this film. At times, it’s a perfect example of just how funny he can be (Fumiko dogs: “Better than a human, being at least.”) but I suppose he also sacrifices some of his usual observational qualities. In truth, this feels a bit like a silly old Hollywood screwball with Todd Solondz-esque humor. It’s fast, it’s witty, it’s fun, and so on but it never really begins to go beyond the surface of “jeez, married life really blows!”

The thing with Naruse’s humor in his other films from the 50s, is that there is always an emotional context, so to speak. The humor in this film is more pronounced but far less poignant: it’s sort of sugarcoating real emotional trouble as oppose to finding the humor inside of it. The humor found in films like Lightning and Flowing come from showing the truth. I suppose there’s no outright examples of this, but I kept thinking of this theory while watching Sudden Rain. Every once in awhile, it’ll feel like a Raymond Carver book, what with people dissecting their own relationships. As great as Naruse was at writing dialogue, he did go a little bit over the top in this case. You can’t make too many compotent criticism against the film, though, as it seems like Naruse just wanted to do a very cynical but very funny film, if only to show his comedic boundaries.

Love of Sumako the Actress (1947)

22 02 2008

Kenji Mizoguchi, once again, shows his ability to create compelling characters and photographing them with a supreme level of visual beauty. It sounds simple, but his balance of character relations and technical innovation is something that only a select few of directors can accomplish. If it wasn’t obvious enough, I’m becoming a bigger fan of his with each new viewing experience. As good as something like Ugetsu is (and it is good) I feel that some may get the wrong impression of the rest of Mizoguchi’s work. It’s film like this that show that he can tragic with some reservations and observations, as well as static compositions that will make Tsai Ming-Liang envious! (Corny, I know…)

Shimamura risks his career and decides to bring Western theater to Japan. The risk pays off, though, but a large part is due to the leading actress, Sumako Matsui. Eventually, they fall in love, but such a marriage is unacceptable in society. Shimamura gives up everything in his life, including his family to begin a new life with Sumako and to hopefully revolutionize the Japanese theater scene his Art Theater company.

This is one of Kinuyo Tanaka’s first collaborations with Mizoguchi and in case, both are on top of their game. Tanaka, who eventually became characterized as a motherly cinematic figure, is fairly young here. It’s quite interesting to see her as the modern, outspoken young women as opposed to the wise, battered matriarch she became in many films later on. No question, though, she’s really fantastic here playing some “live” stage performances, predating Gena Rowlands’ similar (but far less bleak) role in John Cassavetes’ Opening Night.

The cinematography, as always with Mizoguchi, is fantastic. It’s funny, I consider his earlier style to be a bit “rougher” but it’s ultimately much more contemplative. This could be a result of mishandled prints and the inherent dating that goes with film stock, but in a film like this and Sisters of the Gion, he seems to be making decisions as he goes. Some scenes will feature ridiculously long static shots, while another will be a fast tracking shot. It creates a very jarring, but in my opinion, effective aesthetic. It’s sort of “rough” minimalism, while Mizoguchi’s films from the 50s couldn’t possibly be smoother. In any case, I like both approaches. Since the condition of Sisters of the Gion is so poor, it was neat to see what that film probably looks like in a print where you can actually see people’s faces.

While not without it’s tragic moments (would it be a Mizoguchi film without them?) this still comes off as observant and true-to-life as any film exploring the subject. It doesn’t hurt for Mizoguchi to have his trademark technical virtuosity written all over the film, but the great performances are what boost this up into his top-tier of films. Not a “perfect” film per se, but definitely essential for those interested in Mizoguchi.