Introspection Tower (1941)

22 07 2008

While I’d definitely place this on Shimizu’s lower-tier of works, I have to also give it a lot of credit for being so unique. To my knowledge, there really was no film like this in Japan at the time, or anywhere for that matter. Of course, being so different doesn’t give necessarily give it a free critical pass but the film is “interesting” enough to be inherently entertaining for almost two hours. Rather than being built upon a cohesive story as Shimizu usually does, the film features many loosely connected vignettes. There’s plenty of great moments that make the viewing worthwhile, if not downright mandatory. It’s great to see Shimizu doing some experimentation, even if the results aren’t completely successful.

The film opens to Chishu Ryu giving a tour of a boarding school to a group of parents. The camera quietly observes the daily routine of both the school’s teacher and students. On the surface, things seem perfectly fine, even if the institution is for delinquents. Then, we are introduced to Tami, who has just recently been enrolled. She is okay at first, and seems to be the most mature of the children there, but she quickly gets fed up with the school’s treatment. She befriends Masue, who along with Yoshio, makes up a problematic group of wannabe-runaways. The teachers are also frustrated, but by the children’s resistance to co-operation.

There’s many other things going on in Intospection Tower that ultimately doesn’t amount to a substantial part of the plot, but that is because Shimizu’s interests seem to lie in capturing little grains of truth from as many characters as possible, rather than focusing on any clear protagonist. One can argue that Tami is the main character as she is somewhat of a launching pad for the film’s drama, but then, it can also be argued that the teachers are the main characters because their logic is (obviously) much more rational than the children’s. The ongoing plots greatly underscore Shimizu’s occasional playful and even though this film itself isn’t a masterpiece, I do wish Shimizu would have done more “vignette” driven films.

It is probably a bit repetitive to mention that, once again, Shimizu has an amazing sense of confidence handling the camera. With the exception of the inevitable fades, this about as perfect as any film could be on a technical level. Considering the wide and open landscapes he was working with, it is great to see Shimizu avoid many close-ups. When we do see character’s faces, we really see their faces. Perhaps some see the long static shots from far away awkwardly clashing with the ridiculous close-ups, but the transition between the two is handled so gracefully under Shimizu’s direction. In other words, this is another pitch-perfect example of his filmmaking talents, but the narrative isn’t quite up to Shimizu’s usual amount of observation, heartbreak, and poignancy.

Escape from Japan (1964)

22 07 2008

I wasn’t prepared for what is essentially, an outright “gangster” movie. This plays out more like a Seijun Suzuki film than anything else I’ve seen from Yoshida or any other J-new wave director. Then again, even Suzuki was a bit more emotionally reserved of a director than Yoshida was here. What starts out like an update of Good-for-Nothing turns into an extremely woeful action film that then proceeds to indulge in some “runaway lovers” elements. Needless to say, the whole thing is a bit of a mess and not very reflective of Yoshida’s potential. It is still enjoyable to watch, if only as a technical exercise, but even then it is fairly unremarkable.

A group of crime-ridden young adults devise a plan to rob the Turkish bath that one of their friends works at. The plan, as one can predict, does not go as the group plans it and they begin to sort through all the problems. Eventually, two of the people involved in the heist, Yasue and Tatsuo form a romantic bond. The lovers on the run then set forth their plan to “escape from Japan” to the freedom of America, which they’ve greatly idealized.

There are a few positive traits here, aside from Yoshida’s expected technical excellence. Perhaps the single most interesting aspect of the narrative is the fact that the protagonist turns out to be the slightly annoying and extremely stupid (seemingly) comic-relief guy. A clever and daring choice on Yoshida’s part, but probably the only remotely subversive aspect of an otherwise pulpy narrative. The whole post-heist sequence in the gang’s “hideout” has a lot of potential, despite unavoidable shades of Reservoir Dogs, but eventually comes out as being far too dramatic.

There’s literally, a sequence here in which every character seems to screaming, which is not only extremely annoying, it also doesn’t make any sense. Yasue is being rapped, her screams are understandable, but everybody else? Did they forget that they’re hiding from the police? Wouldn’t yelling be the single most unwise thing to do? It’s a bad enough that the film never really amounts to anything more than just a well-executed action movie, but it is even worse when there’s MST3K-worthy gaps in logic like the one I mentioned above. Not a terrible movie, I guess, but it is bizarre and upsetting to think that this the same guy who was capable of making a film as great as The Affair.