50 Years in Times Square: Kurosawa and his Western Remakes

8 Apr

On April 8, 1971, 50 years ago today, I made my first trip to see a Japanese movie on the big screen. It was Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and it may have been the first time the full three-and-a-half-hour cut of the film was shown on the big screen in New York. It was also the first fully foreign-language film with English subtitles that I would see in a theater. The theater was the tiny Bijou Cinema on West 45th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue in Times Square in Manhattan.  Interestingly, just over two months earlier, on January 28, 1971, I’d seen John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), a western remake of SEVEN SAMURAI, for the first time at a theater around the corner from the Bijou, the Victoria on Broadway and 46th Street. On May 20 of that year, I would see Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), the first in the Italian director’s “Man with No Name” western trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, at the Astor Theater, adjacent to the Victoria on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was an Italian western remake of Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961), which I would then see on July 17, 1971, at the Bijou Cinema around the corner. So I saw Kurosawa’s two greatest samurai films and their western remakes in a six-month time period on one strip of real estate in Times Square, all while I was still in high school. Where else and at what time period could that have happened? I was so lucky to be coming of age as a film buff at just that time.31337908446_1655225bc8 Continue reading

Gamera, Hercules, Ninjas and Giant Robots: American International Television, 1964-1970

12 Mar

Screenshot_2021-02-26 Watch Voyage Into Space Prime Video(19)

I recently watched VOYAGE INTO SPACE (1970) on Amazon Prime, a feature compilation of episodes of “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot,” an English-dubbed live-action Japanese series that aired in syndication on American TV beginning in 1969. This compilation was never released to theaters but was sold to TV stations as a movie by American International Television, the TV distribution arm of American International Pictures (AIP), which ruled the drive-ins and grindhouses of the 1960s with all manner of low-budget genre and exploitation films.

I had seen VOYAGE INTO SPACE on television around 40 years ago and seeing the AI-TV logo again triggered a memory of quite a few other Japanese films I’d seen from that era that bypassed theaters completely and went straight to TV. Foremost among these were five Japanese movies featuring Gamera, the giant turtle, that had been retitled for American television, all of which I’d seen on TV back then, usually on Channel 7’s 4:30 Movie (WABC), with four of them completely omitting “Gamera” from the titles: WAR OF THE MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. BARUGON, 1966), RETURN OF THE GIANT MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. GYAOS, 1967), DESTROY ALL PLANETS (GAMERA VS. VIRAS, 1968), ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. GUIRON, 1969), GAMERA VS. MONSTER X (GAMERA VS. JIGER, 1970).

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Hollywood and Japan: Betty Boop Crosses Cultures

15 Feb

I recently watched a Japanese film from 1934, an early talkie called OUR NEIGHBOR MISS YAE (TONARI NO YAE-CHAN), directed by Yasujiro Shimazu, about two young brothers, a university student and an adolescent middle school baseball star, who live across the street from Yaeko, an attractive young student, and the romantic complications that ensue when Yaeko’s older sister Kyoko returns home after leaving her husband and begins to flirt with Keitaro, the university student, whom Yaeko has always had her sights set on.

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Yo-kai Watch: A Clever Anime Mix of 2-D, 3-D and Live-Action

24 Jan

A movie shown in Japan in early 2020, MASHIN SENTAI KIRAMAGER EPISODE ZERO, introduced the year’s super sentai season (the basis for Power Rangers), “Mashin Sentai Kiramager” (still on the air in Japan as of this writing), and offers a closing song sequence in which an anime character from another Toei series, the idol anime “Healin’ Good Pretty Cure,” appears alongside the Red Ranger from Kiramager to do a song, with the 2-D cartoon character inserted into the live-action scene. Soon, other animated girls from the Pretty Cure series, a total of seven, gradually join them in the number, featuring three different sets of Power Rangers, all dancing together. In some shots, they’re all filmed on location in Tokyo, while in others the Power Rangers are inserted into 2-D anime backgrounds. Continue reading

Gamera, Frankenstein, Sabata and Zatoichi: The Genre Films of 1970

30 Dec

50 years ago, in 1970, neighborhood theaters offered quite a varied landscape of cinematic fare, although it took me some time to find it all. I managed to see lots of 1970 releases in theaters in the years 1970-72. (Films sometimes took months or years to reach my local theaters.) Most of these were Hollywood films of varied genres or American independents. I would see everything from PATTON to M*A*S*H, KELLY’S HEROES to ZABRISKIE POINT, FIVE EASY PIECES to LOVE STORY and RIO LOBO to WATERMELON MAN, sometimes on double features! It would take years of TV watching, visits to revival theaters and, much later, cable TV and home video, before I caught up with all the great foreign genre films released in 1970, including England’s Hammer horror, Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. martial arts adventures, French crime thrillers, Japanese samurai, Japanese kaiju, and Italian westerns. One of my favorites from the year is one I first saw in 2018. So there are always new ones to be discovered or rediscovered after decades.

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From Wake Island to Gamera to Perry Mason

23 Nov

In 1942, Hollywood made WAKE ISLAND to commemorate one of the earliest battles in the Pacific War. As depicted in the film, the American marines on Wake Island, vastly outnumbered by attacking Japanese in the early months of the war, fought back valiantly for weeks before finally being overrun and killed. In the film, Brian Donlevy plays Major Geoffrey Caton, the Marine commander on the island, and Albert Dekker plays Shad McClosky, a civilian engineer heading all construction on the island. McClosky resents having to take orders from Caton, but when the fighting starts, he demands weapons for himself and his men. Caton says no. When the Japanese finally storm the beaches en masse, Caton and McClosky man a machine gun together in a foxhole and fight to the death.

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Naruse’s FLOWING (1956): The Fall of a Geisha Household

5 Oct

The more films by Mikio Naruse I see, the more I feel he belongs in the pantheon of great Japanese directors alongside the three I have long considered the best: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. While all three have made films about contemporary life on the ground as lived by ordinary Japanese, whether in Tokyo or the provinces, Naruse seems to have visited this theme most frequently and, in my opinion, most effectively, especially in his 39 postwar films. I’ve seen 17 of his films, 14 of them in the past three years. I was especially moved by the one I’ve most recently seen, FLOWING (NAGARERU, 1956), which follows a group of women in Tsuta House, a once-renowned geisha company in Tokyo going through serious decline as it faces bankruptcy after some bad decisions by its owner and head geisha, Otsuta. We see the off-duty day-to-day life of these women chiefly through the eyes of a new maid, a housewife and widow sent by an employment agency. The maid turns out to be very resourceful and eager to fill various unmet needs and she soon becomes indispensable.

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Happy 70th Birthday, Angela Mao–Kung Fu Diva Supreme

20 Sep

On Sept. 20, 2020, Angela Mao turns 70 years old. She remains, in my estimation, the greatest female kung fu star ever. I re-watched two of her best films for this occasion, BROKEN OATH (1977) and HAPKIDO (1972), and decided to re-post the birthday tribute I did for her four years ago, on the occasion of her 66th birthday, after seeing several of her films, including these two, in new DVD editions. The original post, which includes comments, can be found here. 

Within the last two years, some of the best Hong Kong movies starring Angela Mao Ying have come out on DVD from Shout Factory, remastered, with cleaned-up soundtracks and new subtitles. My earlier VHS and DVD copies had all sorts of problems, so I’ve been wanting to sit down and watch these new editions and thought I’d use the occasion of her 66th birthday today, September 20th, to offer a write-up on them. I watched what I consider her four best films for this piece: HAPKIDO (1972), WHEN TAEKWONDO STRIKES (1973), THE TOURNAMENT (1974), and BROKEN OATH (1977). I didn’t have time for the fifth of her top five, LADY WHIRLWIND  (1972)

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OPERATION BOTTLENECK – A Hollywood WWII Film with Asian Female Commandos

1 Aug

Friday, July 24th, marked the 95th birthday of Japanese-American actress Miiko Taka, who is, happily, still with us. She is best known for co-starring with Marlon Brando in SAYONARA (1957), in which she plays a Takarazuka performer in Kyoto who has a romance with an American Air Force officer. To celebrate the occasion of her birthday, I found one of her more obscure Hollywood films on Amazon Prime and watched it. OPERATION BOTTLENECK (1961), released by United Artists, is pretty much a standard World War II tale of a small American unit going behind the lines in Burma to blow up a “bottleneck” in a key road the Japanese army needs to advance into India. In the course of it, however, they free five “comfort girls,” local village women who had been forced into serving the Japanese officers at their headquarters, and must train them in combat to assist in their mission. It’s a pretty far-fetched story, done on quite a low budget and has some major problems with sexist dialogue and racial slurs, not to mention profoundly insensitive treatment of the comfort women, but it’s also quite distinct from other Hollywood treatments of the war with Japan. It is, I believe, the only World War II movie made in Hollywood with an actress of Japanese descent given top billing and also the only time Hollywood has shown an American officer leading Asian female guerrillas in a war movie, although when they go into combat they’re not quite dressed as they are in this poster:

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Pan Jinlian: The Notorious Femme Fatale of Chinese Literature

24 Jul

While binge-watching Hong Kong movies during the coronavirus lockdown, I reached onto my shelf of Cathay releases and pulled out the two-part movie, THE STORY OF THREE LOVES (1964), starring Grace Chang as a street singer-turned-student who is forced into marriage with a brutal warlord in 1920s Beijing. Early in the film, she is seen performing in a tavern and is called upon to sing a song about Pan Jinlian. Continue reading